Head and Neck Cancer

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What rehabilitation or support options are available for patients with head and neck cancers?

Rehabilitation is a very important part of treatment for patients with head and neck cancer. The goals of rehabilitation depend on the extent of the disease and the treatment a patient has received. The health care team makes every effort to help the patient return to normal activities as soon as possible.

Depending on the location of the cancer and the type of treatment, rehabilitation may include physical therapy, dietary counseling, speech therapy, and/or learning how to care for a stoma after a laryngectomy. A stoma is an opening into the windpipe through which a patient breathes after a laryngectomy.

Sometimes, especially with cancer of the oral cavity, a patient may need reconstructive and plastic surgery to rebuild the bones or tissues of the mouth. If this is not possible, a prosthodontist may be able to make a prosthesis (an artificial dental and/or facial part) to restore satisfactory swallowing and speech. Patients will receive special training to use the device.

Patients who have trouble speaking after treatment, or who have lost their ability to speak, may need speech therapy. Often, a specialist called a speech-language pathologist will visit the patient in the hospital to plan therapy and teach speech exercises or alternative methods of speaking. Speech therapy usually continues after the patient returns home.

Eating may be difficult after treatment for head and neck cancer. Some patients receive nutrients directly into a vein (IV) after surgery, or need a feeding tube until they can eat on their own. A feeding tube is a flexible plastic tube that is passed into the stomach through the nose or an incision (cut) in the abdomen. A nurse or speech-language pathologist can help patients learn how to swallow again after surgery. The NCI booklet Eating Hints for Cancer Patients: Before, During, and After Treatment contains many useful suggestions and recipes.

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